Wee sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an chase thee,
Wi murdering pattle
TO A MOUSE
On turning her up in her nest, with the plough, November, 1785
Ayrshire farmer, lover, Freemason, flax-comber, drunk, Excise Officer, Royal Dumfries Volunteer and poet, Robert Burns remains Scotland’s National Bard, and 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of his birth.
Debt and love affairs dogged Burns’s colourful life. The first Scottish Poems by Robert Burns were published on 31 July 1786 by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, in a limited edition of 600 copies, a copy of which is on display at Robert Burns House, Dumfries and may have been published in order for Burns to emigrate and escape his problems.
Burns’ life was in constant flux but by 1786 his success by writing made him consider himself ’in a fair way of becoming as eminent as Thomas à Kempis or John Bunyan’ , earning at one time a guinea per copy for the second edition of his poems, as well as receiving money from sponsors such as Lord Glencairn and Patrick Miller, who both enjoyed Burn’s poetry. In a letter to John Ballentine, a friend and banker from Ayr, in December 1786, Burns worried that, as a ‘rustic bard’…
‘I was first honoured with your notice, too obscure; now I tremble lest I should be ruined by being dragged too suddenly into the glare of polite and learned observation.‘
Burns travelled through the lowlands, central and the highlands of Scotland, and collaborated in the publication of Scottish ayrs with James Johnson in 1787. In 1786, with mounting money troubles and family scandal, Burns was undecided as to whether to leave Scotland and travel abroad to Jamaica, or stay in Scotland, and in a letter written around October 1786 to Mr Robert Aikin, a writer friend in Ayr, Burns seemed to find himself in the same situation as the mouse in the poem, with nowhere to run. Burns wrote in a letter …
‘I have seen something of the storm of mischief thickening over my folly-devoted head…… I saw myself alone, unfit for the struggle of life, shrinking at every rising cloud in the chance-directed atmosphere of fortune, while, all defenceless, I looked about in vain for a cover.’
Hard work, hard living, debauchery and disease gradually deteriorated Burns’s health. His prodigious writing of over 600 items made Burns famous and considerably more than just a ‘rhymer like by chance’, but his life seemed to be constantly unsettled, both finacially and emotionally. Even a few days before his death he wrote..
‘After all my boasted independence, curst necessity compels me to implore you for five pounds. A cruel wretch of a haberdasher, to whom I owe an account, taking it into his head that I am dying, has commenced a process, and will infallibly put me into jail.’
Robert Burns died a premature death, at the age of 37, but as a member of the Royal Dumfries Volunteer he was given a military funeral on the 21 July 1796.
For more information on Robert Burns, the following resources are available
Literature online – full text drama and prose